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Eternally Feeling Guilty: Letting Go and Taking Action

February 4, 2013

I was at a meeting recently that was a panel discussion on the state of women’s health in the U.S. in reference to all the recent anti-women legislation thrown around this past year (and still now). I was glad to be there as it was nice to reconnect with a majority feminist community after leaving school. During the comments/question section of the panel the microphone was co-opted by a woman who proceeded to comment and then stand to ask how many members of the audience knew about a certain feminist group she was a part of. Nearly the entire room raised their hands.

After the panel was over I connected with one of the women at the head of the initiative and talked with her about getting involved. She, and the others around her, lamented about how they have not been able to get very many young people to forge ahead with them. As far as I could tell, everyone involved thus far who I had spoken with had been a middle-aged, white women. I started getting a suspicious feeling that this organization, while good-heartedly created and run, was similar to the “women-only” feminist gathering I had been to a few months prior (I understand the need for safe-spaces for women only but after visiting this group I was sure that was not the case for their exclusion of men and it left me with a bad taste in my mouth).

I made plans to go to a meeting of theirs to see what was going on but sort of realized what was happening without even having to go. When I got an email about their meeting time and location I thought “No wonder you’re having trouble getting people other than yourselves involved!” The time for the meeting was 1pm in the afternoon on a workday. On a workday. Unless you’re a waiter or another type of shift worker and have enough time to get your shift covered by a colleague, there’s no way you’re going to be able to make that meeting. It was also three hours long which is quite a lot of tip money to be missing out on in the late lunch hour.

After getting several more emails about meeting that were similarly timed I had no doubt that while they were forging ahead doing good work, they were still finding it difficult to recruit youth into their ranks. This got me thinking about the subject of guilt. In movements and activism it’s often problematic at some point or another to achieve diversity and inclusivity in groups. Often this is met with a feeling of guilt and not understanding what the problem is but then a continuing on despite the issue. Back in the good ol’ days of feminism, and still now, this was an issue most keenly felt by people of color not finding representation in such groups and thus not feeling affiliated with the movement. And so we saw a moment in the movement where people of color were working on their own feminism apart from a movement they didn’t feel included them.

Speaking to this, the eternally inspiring Audre Lorde wrote:

I cannot hide my anger to spare your guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.

I come back to this passage often and have probably cried over it more than once (no shame here). I doubt I’m alone when I say that I feel guilty about most everything quite often. And about the most inconsequential things that Lorde would probably laugh at my using her writing to contemplate them better. I should I exercised today, should have treated that person better, applied to one more job, not eaten that ice cream, updated my blog more often, chosen a different major; You can make your own very long list most likely with ease.

We live in a competitive and individualistic society that loves guilt. Our culture thrives on people feeling guilty about not being better in so many ways. But in order to live with this, to not all have to go on record amounts of medication that the millennial generation has embraced to mitigate our anxiety, depression, or general loss of hope, we’ve got to start recognizing and naming our guilt and using it for good.

But before acting on all guilty feelings, we should practice some forgiveness first. I have and will continue to work on training myself for not feeling guilty for eating a bowl of ice cream. It’s delicious and Bill Cosby told me it was basically breakfast so there.

But those moments when you know you your guilt is true, we need to be more adept at making the feeling of guilt into an action of change. If you messed up with someone, don’t just apologize, actively work to fix it starting from that moment. If you know you have the time and ability to learn another language and have felt bad for not trying, turn off the TV and do it. If you want more young people in your groups, ask a young person how that might be accomplished and do that. There’s some guilt that we should always let go because it’s self-inflicted and all it’s doing is holding us back. But there’s some guilt that we need to use to accomplish things, to do.

Make a list, what’s holding you back, what do you always feel bad about, what of those things is frivolous, what’s important? Cross things out and make more lists to get going on doing something about the rest. Because feeling guilty is not enough of a response and it eats you up inside anyway.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. aarondelwiche permalink
    February 4, 2013 4:53 pm

    Sarah, This is an eloquent explanation of the perils of guilt, both at a personal and a political level.

    For those who are trying to balance recognition of their own political privilege with a sincere attempt at social change, it is sometimes *easier* let go of the guilt in our personal lives than it is to let go of the guilt related to our political privilege. This is one reason that the stereotype of the “guilty white liberal” has endured for so many years.

    One could dismiss what I’m about to say as a reflection of my privileged position as a white, male, generally-perceived-to-be-straight academic who has been blessed with the gift of tenure, but I will say it anyway.

    When it comes to politics and social change, a sincere heart, an ability to really listen to other people, and a passionate commitment to make the world a better place counts more than just about anything. It even counts more than the presence or absence of privilege.

    Back in the 90s, there was a disturbing meme in activist circles (and graduate seminars) linked to the Gayatri Spivak article “Can the subaltern speak?” It reached the point where almost anyone who possessed an ounce of political privilege had to either (a) stay silent or (b) engage in ridiculous disclaimers and verbal acrobatics (e.g. “I realize that I’m a white, middle class male graduate student who has plenty of privilege, and I can’t begin to understand the nature of your lived experience, and I shouldn’t even have the temerity to attempt to speak about this topic, but… I really think it’s a bad idea to separate all of the books in this store into different sections according to the ethnicity and gender of the authors.” True story, btw.)

    Back then, when paralyzed by my own guilt, I was discussing these feelings with a friend — a prolific feminist writer and ethicist — and she cut me off in the middle of my verbal acrobatics and said “Speak, Aaron. Just speak. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t.”

    The problem isn’t as much the privilege as what we do with it. From what I can tell, you’re pretty serious about social justice and you’re pretty serious about using your privilege to make this world a better place.

    I like your notion of using guilt to spur actions of change, especially if that means that the guilt can fall to the side and be forgotten, just like the boosters that are discarded when a rocket is launched into the atmosphere. (I realize that someone will dismiss this as an unnecessarily masculine metaphor, but… I just don’t care.)


    • February 4, 2013 6:25 pm

      This is the best comment in the world. Fact. Also I’ve noticed that I have tended to play into some verbal acrobatics when talking about sexual violence, always using parentheticals to note that while I know sexual violence impacts all people I’m speaking of it as it predominantly impacts women. I think it’s become a judgement call when to use it depending on the audience I’m going for/how much I think they’ll slam me for it (and try to debase my whole argument because of it’s lacking).
      But I’m a fan of what you’re friend said. If we do a good job of internally noting privilege I think we can do without being verbose. And even then, I’m sure if some people just didn’t say how they felt without thinking twice or eight times over about it, nothing important would ever be talked about!

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